Why is language important?

28 January 2020

"If you are at war with Russia, why do you speak Russian?" This was the question, raised by a Frenchman in Paris that forced the Russian-Ukrainian war veteran Valery Ananiev to switch to using Ukrainian. For a long time, he was Russian speaking, because he thought it was more prestigious and educated. But the question while on a trip to France, where all the music on the radio and movies on television are French, opened his eyes as to why language is important.

“I started to switch to Ukrainian in 2014. This was related to the events in the east. Originally, I come from Kramatorsk, which means I grew up in a region, where everyone speaks Russian. After I started volunteering, I felt the urge to speak Ukrainian. I was simply ashamed to speak Russian to the Ukrainian-speaking volunteers and fighters on the frontline”. Olga Konovalava from Kramatorsk told us, that it was a matter of principle for her, even though everyone could understand her regardless. She also has friends in the Ukrainian military, who started learning Ukrainian on the frontline, without ever having used it before.

According to the sociological survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 46% of Ukrainians exclusively or predominantly use Ukrainian as the main language of communication with their family and relatives. Another 25% use both Russian and Ukrainian in an equal manner. At the same time, the number of people thinking that Russian should be learned at the same pace as Ukrainian has dropped by almost 20% (from 46% to 30%) over the last 20 years.

The main idea of this year’s law “On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as a State Language” lies in the fact that Ukrainian citizens must know and have a good command of Ukrainian. At the same time though, the law is not punitive because it simply encourages citizens to speak Ukrainian, to create Ukrainian-language content, and to provide services in Ukrainian. 

Over the past few years I have often spoke to journalists, and obviously read a decent amount of media. However, one of the things I could not ignore in the Ukrainian media, is a quite noticeable inferiority complex. 

You must have also seen the Russian headlines in the Ukrainian newspaper columns. Probably you have also noticed that a news item in Russian is almost always the first one to be published on a bilingual website. It must also be very irritating to see how much attention is being paid to the events taking place in Russia in the Ukrainian media.

According to the Law on Language, the homepage of online publications should be in Ukrainian by default, and Ukrainian-language content should occupy no smaller part of the content than other languages.  However, the issue is not only in the law but also in the awareness of one’s responsibility.

Justifying the dominance of Russian language in editorials in online traffic is a shame. This is because in reality, it is nothing but a manifestation of inferiority complex. Media managers and editors-in-chief must constantly keep in mind that a cultural product is also a national security issue.

The fact that top government officials allow themselves to speak Russian publicly, to keep their pages on social networks in Russian, and avoid learning Ukrainian language during their time in public office - by all means does them little justice. If IDPs (internally displaced persons) from occupied Donbass and Crimea, and people from other regions who spoke Russian since their childhood were able to learn the state language, then this task is also fair for newsfeed editors, journalists, and government officials alike.

We should all remember that language is a matter of national security and it’s always relevant. #languageisimportant

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